Home > policy, publishing, research, science > Cash for Impact Factors

Cash for Impact Factors

If you are looking for an academic job in the UK then jobs.ac.uk should be your first port of call. It lists most open postdoc and academic positions that are available in the UK as well as many academic related jobs and some PhD positions. I get a summary email for physics jobs in my mail box every morning. I’m not looking for a new job as such, but the summary gives you a little snapshot of what new projects are starting up, which departments are expanding, what the trendy areas are at present etc. This monring one of the jobs that caught my eye was for a position at Qatar University. So I followed the link and had a look through what was on offer (I was mainly curious to see what research funding provision they have available in Qatar).

One of the most interesting things that is on offer is a bonus for publishing papers, a “Research Reward Program“. You get a base bonus for a paper with an impact factor of 1.00 and then for every point abaove that you get the base multiplied by the IF, up to a maximum value. The money is shared between authors associated with the University, and authors from outside the University dilute your reward. I had a quick look at exhange rates and I think the maximum you could get is about £1700. The scheme came into effect in 2009; I should probably refrain for calculating my potential bonus to date, had I done all my work there.

So this got me thinking, could this work in our University system? If we set the bar at a different level, could such bonuses be used to try and raise our collective standards? Is there some sort of incentive (other than actually keeping our jobs) that with the REF deadline starting to loom, we could use to focus the mind on getting that precious 4* outputs. The Universities get a ‘bonus’ if we all do really well, so couldn’t they pass this on?

There are of course huge potential problems. Corruption of the system is one (as pointed out on twitter by Stephen Royle (@roylelab)), but I think with appropriate oversight this might not be such a problem. The other is that setting on impact factor favours some over others – your line of work will influence the types of journals you publish in, and you can be really brilliant and relevant but never have a Nature, Cell, PNAS, PRL etc paper.

Academics, I think, like working on their own problems. Often these are niche and small scale. We are poked, prodded and shaped, often cajoled into trying to work bigger: bigger challenges, bigger teams, more disciplines. This comes from funding councils and Universities alike. In reality though I see little to inspire me, other than through self-motivation. It might be nice to see some tangible reward if I really shoot for the moon (and get there).

The other point made on twitter about this was from Pete Watson (@Lardytugboat), who suggested that our bonus was promotion (or maybe a pay rise). This is true up to a point, but I’ve never worked in a University where anyone below a Professor really gets a proper annual pay review. A Professor can put the case that they publish lots of papers and brought in lots of grants, so give them a big pay rise. Below that level you might do a review, but unless you are actively applying for promotion, it’s more of a check to make sure you are on staying on track. And then we move up a point on the pay scale anyway.

Of course, we won’t be getting bonuses. Universities can’t afford it, and I doubt the public would stomach it very readily. Clearly if someone gave me more money for doing good work that would be great, but I do think we need to generate better ways to help people go for bigger gains, less incremental work and improve the quality over quantity ratio.

  1. March 2, 2012 at 11:15 am

    I believe China also offers cash for Impact Factors, personally it something I wouldn’t really welcome.

    I moved from academia (no bonus) to industry (bonus). The first year you get a bonus it’s really exciting! Subsequently it is less exciting. The scheme we have typically pays a par “bonus” (it’s normally referred to as variable pay) with some variability based on personal and business performance. It’s a way for the company to reduce pension liabilities (because the bonus is not pensionable), and a way to flex the pay bill with circumstances. The third thing it tries to do is award personal performance. This is where it all gets more interesting, to award a bonus based on performance you need a system for measuring performance. You need to set targets and establish whether targets have been met, this incurs a management overhead. Furthermore, the switched on worker will now attempt to game the bonus system rather than doing the best job they can based on their personal judgement and the judgement of their line management.

    Beyond this it assumes that you are motivated by additional cash, and the evidence is that bonuses motivate manual workers to give improved performance but doesn’t motivate workers who need to think and be creative (there’s a nice TED/RSA video on this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrkrvAUbU9Y)

    This year my bonus was crap, I am now deeply demotivated!

    • March 2, 2012 at 9:03 pm

      I had lunch with someone today who had bonuses for published work, when working outside the UK. He said that he was quite happy as he did very well from it, but ultimately the head of the institute he worked in alter the rules and made sure his group did rather better than they should have. So maybe the comment earlier about corrupt systems is valid.

      In terms of industry bonuses, my wife has had these throughout her working life, and by and large they are wholly subjective and determined by a manager. They make some nod to how well you are doing, but other stuff like how valuable you are, which team you work in, or how cosy you are to the boss also comes into it. The idea of a metric based on a specified output has some appeal, as it’s more objective and arguably based more on merit. Oversight would be required to make sure the system isn;t gamed, but this might not be so onerous for a University administrator.

      I’ll have a look at the video – if there’s decent evidence that it doesn’t act as a motivating factor, then it’s probably a non-starter. I think what I was trying to say was not so much that we should play into the hands of the greed inside all of us, but whether by offering different incentives we could help raise the overall bar of our performance and output. I accept that this may not be the case!

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